Pleasures of Life Dept.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Landing a Zinger

By Jim Moriarty

Butterflies of a particularly glamorous variety usher in an early spring when the Judson Theatre Company presents Morgan Fairchild headlining Leonard Gershe’s play Butterflies Are Free at BPAC’s Owens Auditorium. There will be five performances beginning Thursday, March 7, and concluding with a Sunday matinee on March 10.

Fairchild’s credits in film and television in a career stretching from the 1960s to today are far too numerous to list here. Her resume includes nominations for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She starred last year in the Lifetime holiday movie Ladies of the 80s: A Diva Christmas. She is known for her work as Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) mom on Friends and as the character Jordan Roberts on Falcon Crest in the ’80s. She played the “cougar” stalking Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) on Two and a Half Men. Her film career began in 1967 at the age of 16 when she was asked if she wanted to be in a movie and found herself doubling for Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, a film classic nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

“I wasn’t exactly a stunt double or body double. Whenever they needed a long shot of Faye where you couldn’t be sure it was her, they put in a double. I ended up doing a lot of the driving scenes,” says Fairchild. “They drove us out to the middle of nowhere Texas. I have no idea what I’m doing. I said to somebody, ‘What do we do?’ And they said, ‘Why don’t you take a look at the set.’ So I start walking down this dirt road and I’m not seeing anything that looks like a set. I’m in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of open fields. I see this guy in silhouette coming toward me in the dawn, kind of hunched over and I said, ‘Excuse me, do you know where the set is?’ And he looks up and he smiles. It was Warren Beatty. And Warren Beatty at 28 with the sun coming up behind him is the most gorgeous man you’ve ever seen. Anyway, that was my introduction to movies. It was a great learning experience for a kid. It made me fall in love with movies.”

As well-known as Fairchild is for her work on television and in film, she has managed to make room for live theater. “I started in the theater when I was 10, so I grew up in the theater before I got into any kind of television or film,” she says. “There’s just something about the feedback of a live audience — you’re out there and you’re all in it together.” In 2004-5 she did a national tour playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. And last fall she played the role of Monette in Always a Bridesmaid at the New Theatre in Kansas City.

“Morgan Fairchild is the ultimate pro as Monette,” wrote BroadwayWorld.com of her appearance. “It is a pleasure to see her.”

In Butterflies Are Free, Fairchild plays the role of the over-protective mother Mrs. Baker. “Of course Morgan is so glamorous, which is one of the things that really suits her well to Mrs. Baker,” says Morgan Sills, Judson Theatre Company’s executive director, who will be directing the play, a first for him at Judson though far from a career first. Previously, he directed shows at Millbrook Playhouse and the Shawnee Playhouse, both in Pennsylvania, and at the Artistree Music Theater Festival in Vermont. “The role of Mrs. Baker has always attracted these larger-than-life star ladies who can really, really act. Gloria Swanson. Ann Sothern. Eve Arden. So many different women have played this role. I can’t wait to see what Morgan brings to it because she knows how to land a zinger, but she also has the warmth and the heart and the technique as a stage actor to do it justice.”

Judson’s artistic director, Daniel Haley, typically directs the company’s productions. This one is different because Sills knew the playwright, Leonard Gershe. While Butterflies Are Free is easily Gershe’s most successful play, enjoying a three-year run on Broadway (he also adapted it for the screen in the 1972 movie of the same name starring Goldie Hawn), his extraordinary career included bringing Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings to the screen, writing the second book for Destry Rides Again on Broadway and, along with his writing partner, Roger Edens, writing the screenplay for Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. “He was an excellent problem-solver,” says Sills. “He knew how to look at something and take it from where it was to where it needed to be.”

It was Sills’ work on a show of his own about Edens that brought him and Gershe together. “Part of my primary research was to write everybody at MGM who was still alive to see if they would talk to me. I saw Leonard’s email address in the AOL member directory, and so I wrote him,” says Sills. “We started emailing and talking on the phone. I visited his home in Beverly Hills. We went to Roger’s grave. Then he agreed to edit the script of the show I was writing. It was all of Roger’s songs, including the ones he and Leonard wrote for Funny Face.”

Butterflies Are Free opens with a revelation and closes with the three primary characters arriving at their own personal revelations. Along the way it’s a witty, coming of age rom-com. “The play straddles two eras of playwriting,” says Sills. “There is sort of the old school, well-made play and these late ’60s newer ideas. The play is like Leonard’s still alive because so many of his values are in it. His sense of humor is very much in it. His warmth is in it. So, this is a full circle moment for me.”

The performance schedule opens on Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at BPAC’s Owens Auditorium, 3395 Airport Road, Pinehurst. There is a Friday, March 8, evening performance at 8 p.m. On March 9, Saturday’s 2 p.m. matinee includes a post-show talk-back session with the actors. There is a second Saturday performance at 8 p.m. The run concludes with a matinee at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 10. Tickets can be purchased at judsontheatre.com or through ticketmesandhills.com.  PS

Jim Moriarty is the Editor of PineStraw and can be reached at
jjmpinestraw@gmail.com.

Pleasures of Life

Pleasures of Life

The Forever Christmas Tree

What goes around comes around

By Tom Allen

Vintage is all the craze, a buzzword for something that was once outdated but has become desirable and hip. Millennials, remembering those iconic treasures from their childhood, rummage through thrift stores for everything from clothes to kitchen utensils to furniture begging the label “retro.” 

Vintage Christmas qualifies. Holiday retro is in high demand. Take your mother or grandmother’s beloved ceramic Christmas tree. Popular in the ’60s and ’70s, by the time the earth-toned ’80s rolled around, the trees lost popularity, partly due to aesthetics, also because bulky cathode ray tube televisions were replaced by flat screens. Where to place Granny’s beloved ceramic tree became a challenge.

My mother was gifted a 12-inch ceramic tree in the early ’70s, crafted by a friend who found a retirement hobby making funky owls and mushroom-embossed napkin holders, at a rural ceramics shop. The tree, dark green and flocked with ceramic snow, held multi-colored translucent plastic bulbs. A 60-watt bulb, screwed into the base, illuminated the tree, which rested on a tea cart in the hallway of my childhood home. The tree was visible, and enjoyed, from my parents’ rocker recliners, but only for a few days in December. My mother, a minimalist before the word found its way into the urban dictionary, decorated a week before Christmas. I still remember the thrill of hearing the click of the tree’s on/off light switch, which produced that instant, multi-colored illumination. Pure joy.

Decorations came down a couple of days after the holiday. An elementary school teacher who cherished her holiday break, Mom disliked anything that might capture dust, like a ceramic Christmas tree. More dust meant more cleaning, and more cleaning meant less time to enjoy her break. Though she and my dad enjoyed the tree for years, her pragmatic side always won out. No 12 days of Christmas for their tree, living or ceramic.

My mother’s last Christmas was spent in hospice care, at an assisted living center. I brought her beloved ceramic tree and placed it on a chest of drawers, easy for her to see and enjoy from her hospital bed. The tree’s lights dissipated some of the room’s darkness and cushioned the sadness of her pending loss. That year, she allowed the treasure to stay up after Christmas. The tree was shining bright when she died on a snowy night in late January.

Mom’s ceramic tree made its way home to our house, where we enjoy those same multi-colored lights from Thanksgiving until late winter. I would leave the tree up year round. Last year my wife drew the line on Valentine’s Day.

No longer relegated to the yard sale bin as they were 30 years ago, mid- to late-century ceramic trees are in high demand. Whether made by a beloved aunt or mass produced in the U.S., don’t expect to snag a tree in your local thrift shop for 10 bucks. Vintage trees can go for several hundred dollars. Newer ones, their production outsourced overseas, are still pricey. Smaller versions can be found at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. I’ve seen larger beauties at Gulley’s Garden Center in Southern Pines, and even on Etsy and Amazon. 

The Vermont Country Store, known as “purveyors of the practical and hard-to-find since 1946,” sells “Made in China” ceramic trees from $15 (5-inch) to over $100 (16-inch). If you’re lucky enough to find one at an antique store, made years ago in the U.S. or by someone’s great-aunt, prepare to pay top dollar. 

Our millennial daughters care little for the Barbie ornaments and personalized creations of their childhood, but both have their eyes on Grandma’s ceramic tree. Sorry, girls, gotta wait on that one.  PS

Tom Allen is a retired minister who lives in Whispering Pines.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Pickleball Pandemonium

Investigating the recreational craze

By Jenna Biter

Any day of the week, split the baseball fields off W. Morganton Road and pull into the parking lot at Memorial Park, around, say, 8 o’clock in the morning. Directly through the windshield, you’ll see a pair of empty tennis courts, nets sagging low. They seem to let out a prolonged sigh as the color slowly drains from their hard, green faces as if they’re the sad relics of a popular pastime from a past time.

To their left, a constant thwack, thwack, thwacking drowns out the imagined groans of the aging courts next door.

“Hi, Sam or Chuck or Michelle,” somebody inevitably sings as they push through a chain-link gate into a space bubbling with laughter and the sound of endless thwacking spilling out of the half-dozen slick new pickleball courts.

The public facility replaced a different set of sorry tennis courts at the turn of the summer. Since then, the leftover hardcourt has looked on glumly, little more than spectators watching the new kids on the block.

Originally championed by the silver-haired demographic because its play area takes up one third of the real estate of a tennis court, pickleball’s popularity is winning over younger generations, too. More than just the latest excuse to pull a hamstring, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the United States and has been for three years.

With all the hype, from televised matches to pickleball style guides, you’d think the darling of court sports was imagined yesterday by a brilliant Ivy League dropout. Errrrr, wrong. The first pickleball match was played well before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, in a lazy summer slump of 1965. Determined to entertain their bored children, a gaggle of desperate dads — one of them, Joel Pritchard, a Washington state congressman — slapdashedly devised the sport out of a badminton court, ping-pong paddles and a wiffleball.

Pickleball is the improv sketch of the sports world. Even its name sounds like the butt of a quirky dad joke. So the legend goes, the Pritchard family dog, a cockapoo named Pickles, zig-zagged across the backyard court sniping the game ball, giving the sport its name. In defiance of this urban legend, the Pritchards themselves maintain the pooch ‘n fetch came later. In fact, the paddle sport’s name derived from the term “pickle boat,” rowing slang for a scull full of misfits. Because the sport was thrown together piecemeal, Joel’s wife, Joan, dubbed it pickleball.

After nearly six decades of play, the sport — if it can be elevated to that status, pickleball  — has spread from that backyard in Washington, through perhaps a jillion senior centers and YMCAs, to thwack its way into mainstream recreation areas from Seattle to Sarasota, Burbank to Boston.

Its simplicity is a big reason the sport has been so readily adopted. Usually played in doubles, only the serving team can score. The serve must be hit underhand, diagonally to the opposing pair. Faults include: a shot hit out of bounds, a shot that doesn’t clear the net, or when something happens in a no-volley zone called the “kitchen.” Play to 11 and win by two. There are more rules, but that’s enough to get on the court. The skills of Novak Djokovic are not required.

I was no pickleball pro when I arrived at Memorial Park on a golden Friday morning. With a borrowed paddle and my laces cinched down tight, I was as ready as I needed to be to join a warm-up doubles match. “It’s just about getting your paddle on the ball,” one player said, coaxing me onto the court. That first solid thwack snuffed out any pregame jitters. The blunt feedback of a middle-of-the-paddle hit was more satisfying than I could have imagined, although finesse rather than strength is king on the court.

“The challenging part, coming from a tennis background, is you’re used to hitting the ball hard,” says Anne Merkel, a five-to-six day a week pickler. “And that’s not it. The goal is to try to get up close and just dink it. It’s very strategic. Some compare it to playing chess — it’s all about angles.”

I took the advice, finessing the ball left and right, trying to place it out of the opponents’ reach. Sometimes it worked, though not often enough. We lost the truncated scrimmage in a dismal showing, 5–0. Regrettably, I had to go. Revenge would have to wait. Walking to the car, I phoned my husband, “We need pickleball paddles,” I said.

Beginner or advanced, with or without a partner, from sunrise till quits, people tumble into Memorial Park and, smooth like butter, they seamlessly rotate into matches. This is how the courts have been since they opened in June.

“I love it because it’s fun, the camaraderie, but there’s that little bit of competitiveness,” Merkel says. “Pickleball is for everybody.”  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jennabiter@protonmail.com.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

A Community Treasure

The Ruth Pauley Lecture Series

By Bob Hughes and Larry Allen

Ruth Pauley was a tall, slender woman who walked with a cane. Her thick gray wavy hair sat atop a face that exuded confidence and commitment. She possessed a disarming smile, one with a hint of irony in it, and displayed it often.

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Pauley graduated from Elmira College in New York before receiving a master’s degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University. She began her career with local social service agencies in Ohio before serving in Italy and Greece with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, followed by the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C., as an international consultant, and then with the Boston regional office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as consultant to the New England region before bringing her energy to the Sandhills in 1978.

The lecture series that bears her name is well known in our community, though Pauley herself passed away before the series truly began. It was established in 1988 in her honor, two years after she and her friends — a committee working with the local chapter of the American Association of University Women and Sandhills Community College — had persuaded Dr. Raymond Stone, then president of Sandhills Community College, to host six lectures on nuclear disarmament, a cause to which Pauley was deeply committed.

Dr. Stone was unsure if the venture would succeed, but Pauley and her friends were persuasive and formidable advocates. Among them, they knew many high level individuals in government and the private sector, and had already identified speakers to address the complexities of the issue. It turned out that Stone’s misgivings were misplaced. All six of the lectures were standing-room-only affairs held in Kennedy Hall, room 134, at the time the largest room on campus. Pauley sat on the front row each evening wearing a large peace sign necklace, which she wore at all times.

Her health was declining even as the nuclear disarmament lectures proceeded. After she passed away at the age of 77, her closest friend, Eunice Minton, spearheaded the effort to establish an ongoing lecture series in her honor. Bylaws were written and approved by a board of directors made up of rotating volunteers from the community at large and its four sponsoring organizations: the League of Women Voters; the American Association of University Women; the Moore County School System; and, Sandhills Community College.

Mindful of its mission to “achieve a steady increase in the participation of local schools, personnel and students” in the study of state, national and world issues, on the day of a Ruth Pauley lecture the board arranges a visit by the speaker to one of the area high schools to meet with and address the assembled students. In conjunction with Sandhills Community College the board created the Lyceum Scholar program, providing opportunities for students and teachers to interact personally with some of the most intriguing thinkers of our time. Two students from each of the five area high schools (the Ruth Pauley Lyceum Scholars) are chosen to meet the speaker, enjoy a complimentary pre-lecture dinner with the speaker, and be introduced to the audience at the lecture. Following graduation, the Lyceum Scholar is eligible for a $200 books-and-tuition scholarship through the college’s foundation.

Over the years the series has benefited from several endowments promoting discussion of environmental (Agnes O’Connell Buckley memorial lecture), mental health (Lee and Ellen Airs lecture) and journalism/media (Sam Ragan lecture) issues. These, along with other endowed lectures (the Carl B. Munro lecture and the Lottie Sue Williamson memorial lecture) have enabled the Ruth Pauley Lecture Series to offer a rich and varied tapestry of contemporary thought. In addition to the support of its sponsoring organizations and endowments, the series also relies on the generous support of community donors. With an all-volunteer board of directors and the help of Sandhills Community College, less than 3 percent of revenue is used for administrative expenses. The balance goes almost entirely for honoraria and speaker travel.

Stimulating and entertaining — from Maya Angelou, Sandra Day O’Connor, Newt Gingrich, Jane Goodall, Julian Bond and Jack Nicklaus to Diane Rehm, Leon Panetta, Patty Duke, Branford Marsalis, General Hugh Shelton, Len Elmore, Charles Grice “Lefty” Driesell and The People’s Pharmacy hosts, Joe and Terry Graedon — past speakers have encompassed the full spectrum of human experience.

Coming up this season:

September 21, 2023: “Discourse and Politics in Contemporary America” with Frank Bruni, noted New York Times op-ed columnist and Duke University professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy.

October 19, 2023: “Climate Change and the North Carolina Coast” with Dr. Reide Corbett, dean of Integrated Coastal Programs and professor in the Department of Coastal Studies at East Carolina University.

November 9, 2023: “The Mandela-DeKlerk “Miracle” — South Africa’s Transition from Apartheid to Democracy” with William E. Lucas, retired senior Foreign Service officer, U.S. Department of State.

March 21, 2024: “America and the Right to Possess Firearms: The Past, Present and Future of the Second Amendment” with Joseph Blocher, Duke University professor of law and co-director of the Center for Firearms Law.

April 24, 2024: “The Solar System and Beyond: Artemis, Webb and Inspiring the Next Generation of NASA Explorers” with Anne E. Weiss, Ph.D., NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Education specialist and team lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

All lectures are free, open to the public, and held in the Bradshaw Performing Arts Center in Owens Auditorium on the Sandhills Community College campus. Unless otherwise noted they begin at 7 p.m., are preceded by a cash bar in the auditorium lobby, and are followed by a question and answer session and reception.  PS

For more information and to see a more complete list of past speakers, visit www.ruthpauley.org.

Originally from San Francisco, Bob Hughes and his family settled in Pinehurst in 1996 after a 20-year career in law in Aspen, Colorado. A faithful attendee at Ruth Pauley Lectures, he was appointed to the board as a community member at large in 2021. Larry Allen is a retired Sandhills Community College employee who served in both administrative and instructional positions from 1980-2014. He remains a lifetime member of the Ruth Pauley Lecture Series Board.

Pleasures of Life

The Littlest Stocking

By Audrey Moriarty

When I was a child and my parents were in that special hell reserved for people who are “in-between houses,” I had the great fortune of living with my Grandma and Grandpa for several months. I can tell you they weren’t too happy about it, but my older sister and I thought it had all worked out quite nicely. It was only a mile or so away but it might as well have been another universe.

I won’t say I was Grandma’s favorite, but at the time I was the baby of a whole slew of cousins. Together Grandma and I conspired to keep my mother uninformed of all my transgressions, most involving disputes with my sister that always ended badly, the occasional lapses in my toilet training, and my forays into the forbidden — Grandpa’s office, the delicious pantry, and the totally mystifying medicine cabinet. She handled me in the best possible way. She bribed me with M&Ms.

Half of the perimeter of Grandma’s kitchen was lined with a countertop and a metal Dwyer unit. She would put me on the counter and I could walk from the refrigerator, step down into the sinks, and hike the rest of the way to the end of the peninsula. From my perch on the counter I watched her peel potatoes, tissue thin, with a paring knife, while she called out the names of the birds that came to her feeders and birdbaths.

Anytime I got caught by Mom with wet trainers or a handful of hair I had been forced to yank out of my sister’s head, I would run to my co-conspirator and she would set me on the counter and dry my tears. Then she would whisper to me, “If you look very hard, you will find what I have hidden in the cabinet for you.” I’d search behind the teacups, under the bag of rolled oats, around the Postum, or behind the bacon grease can until, they there were! M&Ms.

This process was repeated many times during my stay with Grandma and Grandpa. I got faster, and she became more and more cunning. She enjoyed hiding them, but never as much as I enjoyed finding them. I savored them, first crunching a few furiously, then holding some in my mouth until the candy shell melted. I even invented a beverage that I continued to prepare for years, putting a handful of M&Ms in the bottom of a glass and filling it with the mysteriously warm and bubbly water at Grandma’s house.

After our new house was finished and we left Grandma’s, we still spent the night on the rare occasions when Mom and Dad went out. One of those times was the night of the annual Christmas party where Dad worked. My sister and I packed our jammies and toothbrushes and couldn’t wait to snuggle in Grandma’s bed, piled in thick quilts and flannel sheets, so foreign from our own. I dressed for the season, sporting my brand new bright red Buster Brown twin set. Mom agreed to the sweaters, but when I put the pressure on for my pair of matching red socks, she balked.

Mom was no pushover, but I know an ensemble when I see it, and I had to have them. I begged, whined and pleaded and finally, she relented. So off we went to Grandma’s, me stylish in all red. The next day, at home, I discovered that I only had one of my socks. I was not about to tell Mom, so I hid the survivor in the back of my drawer and didn’t mention it.

Every Christmas Eve, my sister and I participated in our Sunday School program and afterward went to Grandma and Grandpa’s for dinner and the chaotic joy of gifts. This year my aunt and uncle and their kids, who didn’t have to go to any old Christmas program, were already there, along with my childless and fearsome aunt who lived at Grandma’s. We rushed into the house, stamping snow from our church shoes and smelling the feast of ham and pies. Our heathen cousins had gotten right to the business of shaking boxes and locating the packages with their names on them. But, when we arrived, we were ordered directly to the table. No side trips to the tree for us.

You see, my fearsome aunt’s specialty was torture. She deliberately and perversely slowed the process, ordering people to their spots according to her intricate seating pattern. When she ate, she took tiny bites and chewed them 2,000 times. She made us tell about the Christmas program. She asked us how school was going — what kind of person cares about school on Christmas Eve? We were grilled on what we wanted for Christmas and on and on while we kids stared at each other, our eyes glazed over with anticipation. Then, she offered coffee and dessert, painstakingly cutting geometrically precise slices. When the adults finally finished we ran to the front parlor only to hear a loud voice behind us say, “We can’t leave the kitchen like this!” and we turned to face piles of dirty plates, cups, saucers and pans filling the sinks. My fearsome aunt leered with pleasure.

Hours later, it seemed, pushed nearly to the breaking point, we were ushered into the parlor, where beneath the tree were hundreds of presents. It was so exciting when one of the cousins got something cool and you just knew you were next. Finally, when all the boxes were opened and wrapping papers and ribbons were strewn everywhere and all that waiting was over, Grandma stood up and said, “Oh, I forgot. There is one more thing. Audrey, there is something for you on the tree that you have to find.”

Now you know I had never even looked at the tree, just at everything underneath it. Hanging in the front, pushed back in the dark center, was my red sock, dangling from a ribbon, heavy and full. Grandpa handed it down to me, and I untied the ribbon and out spilled the most perfect candy in the whole world, a special stocking full of wonderful memories.  PS

Audrey Moriarty is the Library Services and Archives Director for the village of Pinehurst.

The Pleasures of Life Dept.

The Sunfish

Too small to keep. Too big to forget.

By Ashley Walshe

This isn’t a big fish story. Quite the opposite, actually. And it starts right here on Lake James, the massive hundred-year-old reservoir lapping the eastern edge of our state’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

It’s the pinnacle of summer. High on a red clay ridge, the whip-poor-will, whose incessant chanting often stretches well into the balmy morning, has gone silent. The red dog is weaving among windswept pines, and I am sitting on the wooden deck of a Coachmen RV, a sparkling sliver of lake visible a half-mile in the distance.

My grandparents used to live here. Not in this 32-foot travel trailer, home to my husband, the dog and me for a warm and watery season. But on down the meandering shoreline, in the brick and stucco home with the vaulted ceiling, lakeside gazebo and sweeping view of Shortoff Mountain.

Papaw kept his pontoon at a nearby marina. If I close my eyes, I can almost see two kids swinging their legs at the edge of his boat slip. I’m the little girl with the auburn curls and wild swath of freckles. My younger brother, all blue eyes and dimples, is perched beside me. Neither of us have fished before.

On this day, Papaw is cradling a box of live crickets, and Dad is showing us how to hook them. The black and silver schnauzer, whose feet and beard are permanently stained from the red earth, is barking at the wake as a neighboring boat glides up to dock.

Once we cover the basics (don’t snag your sibling or grandpa), we cast a few lines, jiggling the rod to make our crickets dance.

Papaw watches from the captain’s chair as Dad teaches us a ditty from his own childhood. The song changes based on who’s singing it. Mine goes like this:

Fishy, fishy in the lake, won’t you swim to Ashley’s bait?

I sing incessantly. And guess what? In no time, I feel the coveted tug of what must be a whopper at the end of my line.

I squeal. I reel. And up shimmies the smallest sunfish you’ve ever seen. A bluegill, I think. No bigger than my tiny, freckled hand.

“Can we keep it?” I ask, twitching with excitement. 

“If he’s long enough,” says Papaw. Gripping my whopper in his leathery hands, he gently slides out the hook then slips the fish into a shallow bucket of water. “We’ll measure him later.” 

My brother and I cast several more lines — first at the boat slip, then out in a quiet cove on the water. Although the song appears to have stopped working, that doesn’t deter us from our fervent chanting. We sing until the crickets are spent, my sunfish our singular catch of the day.

I know now that we had no business keeping that tiny sunfish. But it was never about the fish for Papaw.

Peering down into the bucket, my grandpa announces that the bluegill is “just big enough,” then gives me one of his signature winks. I wink back from my seat outside the camper, smiling through time at a proud little girl and her very first fish.

That night, while the rest of the family ate crappie from a previous haul, I savored every bite of my pan-fried sunfish. It didn’t look like much on the plate, but the memory has fed me for a lifetime. PS

Ashley Walshe is a former editor of O.Henry magazine and a longtime contributor to PineStraw.

Pleasures of Life

Mom the Pathfinder

Have kids, will hike

By Katie Begley

North Carolina is home to some of the most peaceful hikes in the South. I’ve also gone hiking with my kids. The experiences are, well, a bit . . . different.

Hiking with young children generally begins with some crying. Whether it was overshoes that are too tight, naptimes that are too close, or just emotions that are too big, I’m not sure. A single mom with three kids, ages 5, 4, and 2, in tow, I wondered what I had been thinking as we all climbed out of the car at Weymouth Woods. This was supposed to be a relaxing morning on one of my favorite local trails. A tranquil time for us all to connect to the Earth just as it had been for me, by myself, so many mornings before.

We had all been cooped up in the house with positive COVID tests, and now that we were cleared to rejoin the world, I wanted to get some real dirt on the soles of my boots. Instead, someone stepped on the instep of my foot in the parking lot, and I had to fight back the four-letter word that popped into my head, knowing that my kids would take it up as a rallying cry if given the chance.

As soon as we settled on a direction — no small feat given the strong opinions held by each young hiker — the spirit of the hike started to weave its magic through our little group. Our lungs felt a little bit fuller. Our faces, turned up to the late morning sun, felt a little bit warmer. Our nerves, at least mine, started to uncoil. A few leaves crunched under our feet, and sand kicked up behind my kids as they ran, laughing, down the trail.

I was laughing with them, not even thinking about the cubic feet of sand we would all bring back into the car in our shoes, when the boys, 5 and 4, suddenly stopped. They’d discovered a mysterious set of tracks on the trail. A strenuous debate followed about what kind of animal it could be. They ruled out deer because the tracks were too big. A bird of some sort was the top contender for a while until they realized that the clearest of the tracks was a semicircle and didn’t have any claws. My 5-year-old used his preschool powers of deduction to suggest that it may have been a horse, given that we had seen a sign designating this as a horse-friendly path. Always the proud mama, I beamed at what I knew were signs that my kids were destined to be geniuses, possessed of both logic and reason. I had reached peak motherhood.

“No, it’s a velociraptor track,” my 4-year-old announced confidently, followed by what he imagined the velociraptor sounded like at the very instant it swooped into Weymouth Woods and touched down. My 2-year-old fell back onto her bottom, startled by the wild noise, and began crying. My oldest rolled his eyes, said, “Whatever,” in a voice that sounded way too much like a teenager and took off in the opposite direction. I looked around us, silently praying that no one was in earshot of the party of four disturbing the peace.

Having narrowed our choices to either a prehistoric beast or a large hooved mammal, we circled back to the car. It may not have been the tranquil morning that I envisioned but, glancing in the rearview mirror as we pulled back onto the road, I saw my kids nodding off in their car seats, and smiled.  PS

Katie Begley is a freelance writer and executive director at The Wilds Writer’s Studio. You can follow her writing on social media @katiebwriter and learn about The Wilds resources for young writers @thewildswritersstudio or www.thewildsstudio.com.

Pleasures of Life

Egg-Dyeing for Empty Nesters

An Easter without kids brings
a basketful of memories

By Tom Allen

I’ve never been sure when a parent qualifies as an “empty-nester.” Maybe when the only, or last, child has his or her place, when their delivery and return address changes.

The younger of our two daughters officially fledged in June of 2020 when, like her sister, she married just out of college. But from March until her wedding day, June 20, courtesy of a pandemic, the last half of her senior year at Meredith College was virtual.

With campus housing closed and classes moved online, Sarah packed up and came home. We loved it. During the day, she continued her student teaching, online, with 20-plus kindergartners. After school, we cooked, ate supper together, played board games, and during visits from her fiancé, planned for a COVID wedding, with 15 guests instead of 250.

Her presence also meant she was home at Easter, specifically, the Saturday before Easter, which in our family is egg-dyeing day. We, like many, have specific holiday traditions. Fewer, by far, at Easter than Christmas, but nonetheless beloved. Until last year, one or both daughters were home for the annual ritual. No fizzy tablets and water for us. The real deal — the sound of boiling eggs bumping against a pot, the pungent aroma of hot water and vinegar, and McCormick’s “Assorted Food Color and Egg Dye.”

Four little vials — red, yellow, green, blue. The back of the box provides instructions for classy colors like “orange sunset” and “dusty rose.” When the girls were old enough to read, we challenged them to follow directions for other hues — 24 drops of red and 16 of blue make “pretty purple”; nine of green and three of yellow give you “mint green.” Or just squeeze this many drops of whatever and this many drops of whatever and see what happens.

Traditions die hard. Soon-to-be-graduated and married Sarah, along with Mom and Dad, spread newspapers on the kitchen table. My wife boiled a dozen Dollar Tree eggs, their shells dinging against the pan when it hit that rolling boil. Sarah boiled the egg-dyeing water. Odd how the smell of boiled eggs and a teaspoon of White House Apple Cider Vinegar, like cinnamon at Christmas, becomes the smell of Easter. Lilies, boiled eggs, and vinegar. Who knew?

We mixed the vinegar and water in glass ramekins, the same ones used for years. I know. They make plastic cups for those kinds of things, but again, traditions die hard. Like a hot potato, gotta wait for the eggs to cool a bit, but soon, with newspapers spread, water and vinegar mixture ready, spoons out, the time for dunking and dying came.

I’m a McCormick purist — red, yellow, green, blue. Sarah and her mother live on the edge, mixing this with that. No matter. There was laughter and joy, the essence of Easter. We left our creations to dry in the empty Dollar Tree carton. Then, as in years past, we placed the colored eggs in a basket of plastic grass. This would be the centerpiece on our kitchen table for the next couple of weeks.

Last year, my wife and I found ourselves alone on the Saturday before Easter — empty nesters with a dozen cheap eggs.

“You wanna dye eggs?” Beverly asked.

“Sure,” I responded, admittedly without much enthusiasm. She boiled the eggs, but only six. I laid out newspapers. She heated the water. I added the vinegar. Same ramekins. Same McCormick colors. I dipped my three in red, yellow, green. She went for half-and-half colors with hers. Finally, our six dry eggs were placed in the centerpiece basket with plastic grass. We smiled. Traditions die hard.

The saying goes, “We give our children two things — roots and wings.” Roots keep them grounded; wings give them freedom to be themselves. I’ve seen the cliché attributed to Goethe, Jonas Salk and the ubiquitous “unknown.” Their words convey wisdom and truth, but watching them fly can be bittersweet. New families are formed, new traditions are established. Some holidays the house is full. Others, the nest is empty.

Fortunately, our daughters and their husbands live an hour north. The oldest is expecting our first grandchild, a boy, at the end of April. Even with an early arrival, he’ll be too young for egg-dyeing this year. Ah, but next year, sometime before Easter, we’ll probably cover a kitchen table with newspapers, boil some eggs, bring out the ramekins, vinegar, and McCormick “Assorted Food Color and Egg Dye.” Who cares what colors he chooses?  Traditions live on, like Easter’s joy and laughter.  PS 

Tom Allen is a retired minister living in Whispering Pines.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Reconsidering a White Christmas

Perfection isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

By Tom Allen

The chances of a white Christmas in the Sandhills of North Carolina are slim to none. Even if a few flurries put folks in the holiday spirit, the National Weather Service defines a white Christmas as having at least 1 inch of snow on the ground the morning of December 25. But a couple of inches on December 22 that hang around for a few cold days would make the cut, right? Liturgically speaking, Christmastide is 12 days, so more days equals a greater probability, correct?

Dreaming of a white Christmas, where the treetops glisten? Bing crooned the iconic song, first heard in Irving Berlin’s classic, Holiday Inn, then later in the eponymous motion picture. It continues to be the bestselling Christmas song of all time.

The concept is lovely, but when it actually happens, the dream, more often than not around here, becomes a nightmare — wind, cold, ice, cars off the road, and sundry other unpleasantries. In our part of the world the three French hens wouldn’t have electricity.

Aside from a couple of Christmas day dustings, I’ve only experienced one white Christmas, in Louisville, Kentucky, the winter of 1990. One front after another brought several inches of snow, starting the first week of December, continuing, almost weekly, for the next three months. Snow and a couple of ice storms kept the frozen stuff on the ground until early March.

Western Kentucky is well-equipped for these seasons, unlike the more temperate parts of the South, where a couple of inches brings life to a standstill. Roads and parking lots stayed pretty clear. Even the apartment complex where I lived kept the sidewalks and entryways clean. But dirty, piled-up snow, gray mush and salty slush made for a depressing winter. And even with salt trucks and snowblowers, I often found myself waddling on an icy sidewalk or gingerly taking baby steps, hoping not to fall, which I did on a few occasions, bruising my ego more than other bodily parts.

On Christmas Eve 1990, my then-fiancée, Beverly, and I headed out to a service at the church we attended. The night was cold, raw, with just enough flurries to slow driving. Inside, the setting was beautiful, traditional, candles and crèche, and “Silent Night” to wrap things up. Heading out to my car after the service I noticed a grey Buick sedan had skidded on an icy patch into the front door panel on the passenger side of my red Toyota. Before I could yell, “Hey, hold on,” the car was gone. The dent was minor; I’d like to believe the chap driving the grey Buick had no idea he bumped my car. After all, it was Christmas — peace on Earth, goodwill to men, even the ones who dent your red Toyota. My instinct was to run, to catch the fella’s attention, to wish him a “Merry Christmas” before I pointed out we needed to talk. But another patch of ice brought me down, making me wonder just how merry and bright this Christmas would be.

As I recall, other than the dent — which I never got repaired — and a sore backside, it was a pretty good holiday. Oddly, the fact that our Christmas was white mattered little. I’ll take a chilly morning, clear roads, whatever family is gathered, and a snuggle with my dog. Because the perfect Christmas, like the perfect marriage or kids or job or church, really doesn’t exist.

So, consider letting go of that perfect holiday. Substituting canned biscuits for yeast rolls that failed to rise isn’t the end of the world. What if the recycled Dollar Tree bag you had to use because you forgot that pretty roll of paper had someone else’s name on it? Don’t sweat it. Kids wiggly at Christmas Eve services? Baby starts crying during “Silent Night”? What better night to hear an infant cry?

The probability of a white Christmas here is low. Chances of a 70-degree day are the same as a 40-degree day. So be thankful for whatever’s on your table — and the people around it. Be civil. Be kind. Be glad.

Just watch out for that guy in a grey Buick sedan.  PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

Character Study

Broadway on Broad Street

All dressed up and on the go

By Jenna Biter

“Scarves, shawls, black and white for My Fair Lady when they do the Ascot scene.” Mary McKeithen points to one garment, then the next. “And purses from all eras.” Storage bins mound with handbags and clutches. “Black gowns.”

She cruises down the aisle past clothing rack after clothing rack, then stops. “I cover these up to keep the sun from fading them through the window.” She pulls the corner of a cherry-red dress out from beneath a drop cloth. “Right here is more Renaissance. And, of course, shoes, shoes, shoes.” Vintage heels vie for cubby space on a far wall.

She reaches the end of the first aisle, already whirling and grabbing at garments in the next — dresses for Oklahoma!, sequins, and turn-of-the-century chiffons for the song “Shipoopi” in Music Man. “Right here is all of the Jackie Kennedy era. I’ve done shows mostly at colleges with these,” she says, waggling a skirt suit back and forth. “See the Jackie suits? And then here are more sequin things and we start back at the ’50s . . . ” She advances a rack, passing through time as she goes, “ . . . ’40s . . . ” and then “ . . . ’30s.” She points at a group of white and trills, “Here are the angels and ghosts.” Fa la la. A few swollen aisles and hundreds of costumes later, she laughs. “And this is only half.”

Only half of the upstairs! Costume jewelry, wedding dresses, men’s suits and tuxedos in all sizes, and band and military uniforms fill the rest of the upstairs of Showboat Costumes and Collectibles in Southern Pines. For the most part, McKeithen stores all things theater on the second floor of her shop, and the Halloween costumes, Santa suits, mascots — all the stuff that can be rented à la carte — on the first. She ballparks the building: “I think it’s about 11,000 square feet.”

Showboat Costumes and Collectibles at 712 S.W. Broad St. in Southern Pines, is McKeithen’s shop and warehouse, but it’s also her studio. “These are all ribbons and bows and cloths and sequins and trims and everything,” she says, fingering the drawers that edge a well-loved worktable. “I have a little room back here, this office, because sometimes about 4 o’clock in the morning, I’ll get an idea.” She points to a full-sized bed in the corner. “I get something in my head, and I’ll get up and come to work and then get tired.”

But not that tired — she’s embellished, reconstructed or made ex nihilo many, if not most, of the costumes in Showboat. For the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ production of From the Mountains to the Sea, she magicked up convincing turtle, catfish and salamander costumes. And with the help of her husband, Jere, and a professional upholsterer, she even made Madame Garderobe, the wardrobe in Beauty and the Beast, with a set of fully functional drawers.

“I kind of do more of the design,” McKeithen says. “My daughter Marcie is real meticulous, and she always dots the i’s and crosses the t’s for me. Makes sure everybody’s got shoes, everybody’s got socks, everybody’s got . . . ” She trails off. “I couldn’t do it without her.”

If it weren’t for Marcie, McKeithen wouldn’t even be a costumer. “My daughter was in a Madrigal dinner at Pinecrest High School, and her costume was better than the other kids’,” she says, thinking back to 1993. “They called me and asked if I would embellish some of the other costumes, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll have a go at it.’ And then they started getting me to do their plays.”

Before that, McKeithen’s only experience with theater was as a high schooler. She grew up in Carthage with her parents and five siblings in the house that used to share property with the jail. “My daddy was the chief of police until I was in my mid-teens,” she explains. McKeithen attended Carthage High, and, as a junior, she got the lead in the school’s production of Mama’s Baby Boy.

“My boyfriend at the time gave me a million-dollar check for a contract to Hollywood when the show was over as a joke,” she adds, laughing. Then, as a senior, she got the lead again, but the school’s auditorium burned down before they could perform the play. “Other than that, I never knew or cared anything about theater at all. I didn’t care about theater until Marcie started. Amazing how one little thing can change everything,” she says.

“Then I got hired by the Temple Theatre — I did them for 12 years  —  and I did Pembroke, Campbell, all the high schools around here. I’ve done shows in Washington, New York. Let’s see, I worked for the Highlands Theatre, and I did an outdoor drama in Kenansville.” McKeithen has been bringing Broadway to the Sandhills and beyond for nearly three decades. She juggles between 12 and 15 shows a year, about eight of them in the spring, and the rest in the fall and winter. When asked how she balances them all, she says, “If I read a book, I have to complete it. I mean, I just can’t wait; I have to read it all. But, when it comes to a project, I’m able to say, ‘OK, I’ll do this a little bit over here and then this a little bit over there.’ I can do projects in stages.”

McKeithen applies her multi-tasking mentality to life writ large — not in a stressed-out-frazzled kind of way, but in a how-much-life-can-I-take-in kind of way. She’s had photography and cross-stitching hobbies and became an auctioneer and appraiser, along with Jere. “He said it was cheaper for me to go to auctioneer school with him than for me to have two weeks to shop,” she says. They collected a whole houseful of colored glass, instruments, copper cookware, opera glasses and dolls for their two granddaughters who live next door.

“Oh, and when we were young, we had a band. We sang music and played up in Greensboro,” she says. “That’s how we earned money to go on vacations.” She still emcees at a bluegrass festival near Raleigh.

McKeithen has been a Moore County commissioner, president of the Moore County Hospital Auxiliary, and served on the FirstHealth Board of Directors. Until recently, she and Jere both had pilot’s licenses — they even have a 900-foot runway on their farm. “We live on a farm that’s not really a farm,” she says. “We’re not trying to raise anything but pine straw.”

She’s a bit of a comedian, too. “But my favorite thing to do,” she admits, “is I have two John Deere tractors, and I mow the farm. Relax on my tractor, mow the grass.”

Mind you, the farm/not-farm is about 175 acres, but she mows in stages, too.  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer, entrepreneur and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jennabiter@protonmail.com.